Meeting a troupe of romantics

Qawwali performance by Ustad Ateeq Hussain Khan Bandanawazi and his troupe, Bandanawazi Qawwal

On the evening of November 17th, stories of Laila-Majnu, and the words of Kabir and Amir Khusrow came out to play at the auditorium in IIMB campus on Bannerghatta Road through a Qawwali performance by Ustad Ateeq Hussain Khan Bandanawazi and his troupe, Bandanawazi Qawwal.

The troupe, having previously performed at events like the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the International Sufi Festival at Turkey, took the audience through a two-hour long carnival of emotions with their music- frivolous one moment, and sombre the next. Of course, while the music may have been enjoyable in its own right, the conversational tones it took on so often, coupled with the wit and humour of their lyrics made one realise just how much beauty words can create if you just string them in the right order- much like pearls fit for a queen.

The couplets – designed to delight – were mainly in Hindi and Urdu, with a little bit of Persian. As each rhyme neared its end, you would wait for the punch line, because you knew that it was coming and that it was going to be good. The singers also doled out bits of information every now and then about Sufi culture in general, enabling one to appreciate the art all the more. Another interesting fact about this troupe was that while Sufism might be Islamic in its origins, they also sang songs of Krishna, lending a rather secular image to the group.

The singer and his troupe of wise romantics, as I like to call them, seemed to have created their own world and were letting us, the audience, into it for one elusive evening. As he sang, he was in turn a devotee, a preacher, a romantic, a wise guy and a broken heart. And while they may have been sitting on the floor, they sang with their whole bodies; if their words were saying something, their hands, tablas and harmoniums were echoing the very same message.

That passion, perhaps, was what was most prominent that evening. Music may be described in several ways- but if I had to pick, instead of referring to intricacy or finesse, I would call the performance one of raw emotion. And as a member of the audience, their energy, their fun and their state of ecstasy was absolutely contagious; even if you were sitting still to begin with, you were inevitably moving to the patterns, rhythms and repetitions by the end. It was as if a game was being played between the singers and their audience, each one passing the baton to the other with their responses. Every time the music was accentuated by a jubilant exclamation or a carefree laugh, the audience rejoiced alongside and every time their voices soared towards the end of a couplet, you felt your spirits soar with them.

The ensemble was rather minimalistic in terms of instruments, with the harmoniums and tablas being their only accompaniments. However, coupled with the consistent clapping by the performers and audience alike, it was the perfect complement to the chorus of voices, while the weight of the performance was borne in essence, by the words and their content.

The tabla had its moment of glory towards the end of the performance when all other voices and instruments went silent to let its commanding beats echo off the walls of the auditorium. The troupe performed several crowd favourites as well, including lines from Chaap Tilak (of Coke Studio fame) and Mast Qalandar. Even Bollywood found a place for itself that evening in the form of an authentic Qawwali rendition of Khwaja Mere Khwaja.

All the revelations about life and love that emerged that evening made the whole affair feel like a light-hearted conversation about weightier issues over a steaming cup of Suleimani chai. And while their words and expressions may have made the troupe seem like observers of and commentators on life, it felt as if ultimately, all they were trying to say was, don’t take life too seriously; make music of it instead.

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